Penal Substitution: 2 Years Later and We Still Cant Get No Satisfaction

The Lost Message Of Jesus Cover-1It was October 7th, 2004 and we were sitting on highly-elevated pews in a London church, waiting to hear Steve Chalke explain and defend his issues with the theory of penal substitution that he outlined in his book “The Lost Message of Jesus[co-written with Alan Mann]- a book that actually never mentions the term “penal substitution”. The term, btw, refers to a theory of the atonement developed by Calvin and the Reformers and built on the Satisfaction Theory of Anslem. One of the tension points is whether Paul or the writers of the gospels held a view of the atonement similar to the Reformation theologians. Did the Reformed theologians wrongly place a judge’s wig on God the Father? Are we reading Paul through Calvin? Are we clouding Isaiah 53 with our modern concept of a Western legal system?

The debate was hosted by the Evangelical Alliance and it cost us all £4, a meager sum for a good night out. My account of the event is in a blog post called Chalke-Gate. That was a bad title for the evening [apologies to Steve] because it suggests something more controversial that it actually was. In reality, it was a well led, congenial, good-natured discussion and debate. Stuart Murray Williams spoke well in support of Steve Chalke. Here is the text of Stuart’s message.. . [ahhh . .. i just remembered . . . I owe Stuart £9 for his new book called Changing Mission: Learning from the Newer Churches] Anyway, Joel Edwards of EA said they would give it more consideration and work on a statement. More on that later in this post, including the Symposium held the following year.

Fast Forward 2 years.

We are now in America (God bless it) where conversations are conducted differently and the quaint English Symposium gives way to aggressive Atonement Wars. Mark Dever’s article Nothing But The Blood has recently raised the level of tension and an Emerging Church Forum, like this one hosted by Westminister Theological Seminary, has a session entitled “Why Did God Not Spare His Son? The Antecedent Necessity of Penal Substitution”.

Its lunchtime. On one side of the table is John Piper, a well known theologian and defender of the Supremacy of Reformed Thinking in a Postmodern World. On the other side is Tony Jones, a well known theology student and Coordinator of Emergent Village. Also seated are the mandatory henchmen associates that one brings along for such passionate lunchtime discussions. John brought three guys and Tony found the biggest guy on the emerging church circuit – Doug Pagitt

Tony blogs his lunch conversation:

“John Piper basically equates a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement with the gospel. I am unwilling to do that. I don’t disparage that theory of the atonement (see my recent endorsement on the back of the 20th Anniversary Edition of Stott’s The Cross of Christ), but I believe the birth/death/resurrection of Jesus Christ to be the pivot point of cosmic history. Thus, I do not think that one theory interpreting that event to be sufficient. Every theory of the atonement is 1) human, and 2) bound to a context. The penal substitution — while there are seeds of it in Pauline writings — is tied to the development of the Western legal mind.” Tony Jones, who recommends Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement by Gustav Aulen

There are many others who suggest the theory of penal substitution should not stand alone.

Scot McKnight: “For goodness sake, let’s use all the images for atonement so the story will become grander that we can imagine! The atonement, friends, is a banquet, and we need to sample each course as it comes along.” SMK, More Thoughts on Penal Substitution 2

Vanguard Church say it with flowers.

Single Rose-1Rose Boquet-1

Rewind to 2005

Remember I said that Joel from Evangelical Alliance would push on with the penal substitution thing? Well in July 2005, London School of Theology and Evangelical Alliance hosted a Symposium to bring the conversation further. I wasn’t there. And no one noticed. But the symposium continued in my absence and a statement was issued. Heres the key piece:

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“it became plain that significant differences remain between evangelicals on the precise formulation of atonement theology, and on the status of the penal substitutionary theory of atonement in particular.” [link]

“Summing up the symposium, the Alliance’s General Director, Joel Edwards, said: ”Penal substitution is still central for most British evangelicals’ understanding of the cross, and the Alliance’s own ethos reflects that. However, there is an extent to which the exact mechanics of the atonement must remain a mystery to us in our limited, sinful perception.“ [link]

I guess thats where the Evangelicals in UK have landed for the time being. Lets see if the Americans can land gently and avoid the power struggles over who has the superior statement.

Speaking of statements, heres one that we can all agree on . . .

”For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures.“ 1 Cor 15:3-4

Heres a sprinkling of resources both for penal substitution as victor of the atonement wars AND as merely one shade of meaning of the atonement but something that should not dominate.


– Richard Hall gets Google Number One ranking for his concise post that is worth a read.

– Scot McKnight takes his time with Penal Substitution Number 1 where he gives a good history of recent scholarship

and Number 2 where he shows why he thinks the penal substitution as a categorical term for a theory for the atonement is not enough.

– Open Source Theology on views of atonement and in particular, why the emerging church should believe in penal substitution, where Andrew Perriman argues that ”a doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is certainly biblical but that it has to be framed narratively.“ A poll on this site showed penal substitution to be the major player in atonement theories, although I found the poll too singular in its focus – do we really have to choose ONE theory over and against the others, or can we see the atonement synoptically and allow for multiple shades of meaning?

– Phil Johnson shames Steve Chalke in Spurgeon and penal substitution revisited

– Pete Brierley on Is Penal Substitution a Naughty Phrase?

– Adrian Warnock discusses an upcoming book and outlines a talk by Thomas Schreiner.

[added later]
Conrad Gempf


JI Packer What did the Cross Achieve: The Logic of Penal Substitution – its a long read but Packer suggests PS is a keeper.

Mark Dever’s Nothing But The Blood



The Lost Message of Jesus by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann

Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement by Gustav Aulen

The Nonviolent Atonement by J. Denny Weaver

Final note: what to tag this? I am not using the ’emerging church’ tag because i dont see this issue as primarily an emerging church issue. Its a whole church issue and Steve Chalke is considered an integral part of the evangelical church of UK – but is not directly connected with the emerging church. I don’t say that in a negative way.



Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • Rob Grayson says:

    Hi Andrew,
    Just want to say how refreshing it is to find someone who has a strong voice in the Christian blogosphere that isn’t self-promoting, arrogant or disparaging of others. I know there are lots of others out there, but as someone who only started exploring blogs in the last few months, there’s an overwhelming amount of invective and backbiting out there, and not too much in the way of love and humility. Your blog is a model of balance – always seeking to speak the truth with love.
    Blog on!
    Normandy, France

  • Sivin says:

    Good one Andrew … I particularly liked this:
    “do we really have to choose ONE theory over and against the others, or can we see the atonement synoptically and allow for multiple shades of meaning?”

  • Graham Doel says:

    I resisted reading Steve’s book for a while because I don’t like jumping on bandwagons (but theres another story). When I did read it I was surprised that it wasn’t about atonement, but about the gospel. Correct me if I’m wrong but I thought the book outlined what he thought was the “lost message” of Jesus, not atonement. The fuss seems to have been about a throw away line towards the end of the book.
    Stuart Murray said the other week that there appears to be a lost message of the lost message of Jesus.
    (welcome back btw).

  • Eddie says:

    Thanks for this post, Andrew. It is really helpful. I come at this issue from a couple of angles. Firstly, it seems obvious that human language and thought are insufficient to capture the scale and majesty of God’s actions. That’s why the Biblical writers resort to metaphor and parable, because these ‘literary forms’ can carry a depth of meaning way beyond the simple content of the words themselves. Even then, no one metaphor is able to grasp the complexity of the atonement. Secondly, my mission experience is mostly in rural West Africa; there the penal substitution metaphor had very little meaning and I needed to re-explore the message of the atonement in order to explain it in a meaningful way.
    However, I would stress that we need to be adding new models to our understanding of the atonement, not rejecting the older ones. In only thinking of penal substitution, the evangelical church has often weakened its understanding of the breadth of the atonement. If exposure to new metaphors and pictures causes us to reject penal substitution, we wll be in a different place, but no richer.
    Again, thanks for your irenic and helpful overview.

  • joeturner says:

    I guess my main beef is that I don’t accept that it is justice to punish someone else for something I have done (or not done, depending on your understanding of original sin…).
    In the OT we are told that God requires the sacrifice – yet what is the death of one animal to the God-of-All? Maybe in fact, the sacrifice was more for man than to placate God. We need to know that giving that costs nothing is worth nothing, and that the response to unending love must be a sacrificial life – even to death on a cross.
    It was not sin that held him there, but love.
    I don’t understand why this kind of thinking is considered to be so offensive.

  • brodie says:

    Good summary Andrew. If I may can I add to your resources list? Miroslav Volf in perhaps his most accessable work to date (IMHO), Free of Charge, engages with this debate in Chapter 4, God the Forgiver.

  • Hi Andrew,
    I don’t think that you would find any thoughtful believer in penal substitution who would deny that there is more to the atonement than this truth. Dever says as much in his CT article.
    I think the problem here is twofold.
    1. There are those who deny the validity of penal substitution and who want to police those who affirm it. This, as I understand it, is Chalke’s position. PSA is a distorted non-gospel.
    Whether affirmers and deniers can live happily together as evangelicals is the big issue. 1 Cor. 15 gets interpreted in different ways depending on whether one is for or against psa.
    (And by the way just because he didn’t use the phrase “penal substitution” in the book, that doesn’t alter the fact that he redefines God’s holiness, wrath, and sin throughout the text so that you end up without the need for the atonement by the time you get to the last few chapters).
    2. There are those who would affirm penal substitution but who see it as one view among many views of the atonement rather than as as central image that explains the others.
    On that one I think Henri Blocher’s essay “Agnus Victor” is masterful. He shows the deficiencies in Aulen’s work and how the victory of the Devil really is because of penal substitution. The satisfaction of God’s justice by substitution is the way of silencing the Devil’s accusations against the saints.

  • Good points, Andrew.
    A while back there was a brief article in the (now defunct) NZ magazine Reality on the various significant ways the Atonement has been seen. Written in response to “The Passion” film. Might be useful for people who are unfamiliar with the jargon that surrounds the issue.

  • Andrew,
    Good snapshots of what is going on with respect to atonement.
    As you know, I’ve been part of this discussion. It is my contention, and will be clear in the book that will come out next August or so (A Community called Atonement), that the penal substitutionists who are (only recently) contending for all the models to come into play, show very little sign of using any other model than PS. (The singular sign of such is their inability to integrate kingdom into atonement theory.) Some lean at times in that direction, but the fundamental rhetoric remains PS. I hope to be part of a movement that develops atonement in a more comprehensive way.
    Graham’s comment above illustrates the problem, because he says the book is about gospel (as kingdom) but not atonement. Chalke (unfortunately) caricaturizes PS as cosmic child abuse. (I hope this has come to an end.) Chalke wants to talk about kingdom, but finds no rhetoric space for atonement. Why? Because atonement has been too narrowly defined and it makes kingdom and atonement different rhetorical games. This is sad. But, the two can be brought together.

  • Tim Bailey says:

    Good post. Glad you are back.
    The whole debate over penal substitution (which has always sounded rude to me…) seems to dim when I get back to the belief that Jesus was fully God. It seems no longer to be Father punishing Son, but a beautiful self-sacrifice, opening the door to the God/Human love relationship. As usual, when we start dwelling on one side of the God-man, we miss the mystery and start “choosing sides”…

  • ryan says:

    Nice post Andrew, but I think Driscoll is ahead of you on this one. Last year he preached a 12 week series covering many different aspects of the atonement. I am suprised you did note it in your reference list. Just like Demerest and Lewis argue for in their “Integrative Theology” we should have a multi-perspectival view of the atonement. I do not think it is fair to paint Piper and Dever as only having one view of the atonement. Just because Dever wrote an article addressing PS does not mean he soley thinks that is all that took place.
    Anyway Driscoll does a great job covering this in his series “Christ on the Cross” and it is worth listening to.

  • Jesus Christ says:

    Wow! You do a great job with your links!

  • andrew says:

    aw shucks . . Jesus . . . your just TOO full of grace.
    Ryan – thanks. i didnt know Mark was preaching on penal substitution. i tried to get a link to the series but the link doesnt work. Please send a link if you find it.
    Timbo – nice to hear from you. Yes, a healthy view of the Trinity comes to save us again
    And finally. Scot. Look forward to the book. I have heard Steve Chalke say that the “cosmic child abuse” is a quote from an earlier theologian and he was using it as evidence of a strong argument against penal substitution. He is a little miffed that people are now attributing that meme/phrase to him. I am sure you know that.

  • Alan Cross says:

    Thanks for all the links, Andrew! What a discussion.
    While I’m definitely in the penal substitution camp as far as it being the main view, if you had to choose one, I think that other views are valid and should be included. For example, the victory of Christ over the powers view is definitely biblical. Why can’t we see the atonement from the penal as well as the victor perspective? Why don’t we just go with the views the bible gives us, believing that the atonement is BEYOND our small categories and that it is a full as what God’s Word makes it out to be? Seems rather clear to me.

  • Jake says:

    Thanks for the extensive post and resources. I will be reading up on this!

  • says:

    lunching, theologizing, contexualizing

    I just lunched with Stephen faithmaps Shields at Sierras Grill (in an obscure rural location near the I-495 I-95, Marylands own quasi- mixing bowl). Delicious food and great company! And like good bloggers, and to make good …

  • TSK,
    Yes, you’re right. He did not invent the expression. As I understand it, the expression came through the radical feminists — Parker and Rita Brock — and then Joel Green/Mark Baker used it rhetorically, just as Chalke did — and so did Brian McLaren.
    What Green, Baker, Chalke, McLaren is each getting at is that exaggerations in atonement theology — who doubts that some don’t abuse atonement in evangelism? — can lead to distortions of our view of God. If God is anything in the atonement, God is gracious — and rids sin from the world.
    Well, thanks for the personal word about Steve Chalke.

  • andrew says:

    yeah . . i figured you would know that. and my blog post did not touch on the darker side of the PS argument where the exaggerations have led to accusing evangelicals, perhaps wrongly, of a propensity to violence and military aggression – but i am sure you will cover that in your book.

  • Jon Harris says:

    I know you stated it briefly at the end, Andrew, but can I just make the point more strongly that The Lost Message was written by two people, not one?
    Alan Mann (declared interest: I know both him and Steve personally) deserves his share of credit for this book and is well able to handle, with grace and humility, any of the flak arising as well.
    On a different note, I was at the London symposium with a guy who was neither a Christian nor a churchgoer, who came away totally inspired by what Steve had to say and determined to find out more about Jesus.
    I know first hand that that was the primary motivation behind Steve’s writing of the book: to reach out to those beyond the church.
    It saddens me that the atonement debate, important though it is, has so obscured the fact that people are finding Jesus through LMOJ.
    Would Jesus be so interested in debates about his death as in a single lost sheep being found again?

  • Mike Morrell says:

    Great post, Andrew. I’ve been wrestling with atonement for awhile now, and have collected my own listing of links here, many of them voices from our Anabaptist brothers and sisters who have a strong argument against penal substitution.
    < Disclaimer / Please note that my tags are my ongoing personal research tally, and should not be interpreted as an endorsement (which is more implicit, though not carte blanche, on Sites Unseen. / end disclaimer. >

  • andrew jones says:

    thanks jon, i left alans name out only to keep the post short and simple. thanks for pointing that out.
    mike – as usual, i appreciate your links

  • andrew jones says:

    ryan – i found part of Mark Driscolls atonement series.
    The one on Unlimited Limited Atonement anyway – it would appear that Marks view of this is the same as i was taught and probably hold – despite Roger at A-Team saying that this view is not properly Reformed. Lining our theology up with Scripture is more important to me than the statements of men.
    I will look out for others in the series. Thanks.

  • David says:

    Amazing, I picked up this book only yesterday and thought back to Chalkegate. I was always amazed that there was so much discussion over such a small part of the book. The rest of it had some interesting things to say too.
    It seems that we were pretty eager to jump on a heretic – for my part that I have had to think about the issue is good.

  • James Alison’s article Some Thoughts on the Atonement, is in my opinion, foundational for understanding what the atonement and Gospels are all about.

  • graham says:

    Nice summary, Andrew.
    I was in a seminar recently when someone spouted the old line about Chalke saying God ordaining the cross was cosmic child abuse. I had to interrupt and point out that he doesn’t even say what Scot says above. Instead, he has always been talking about distortions of the cross. ISTM, that he would not deny that its possible to formulate an acceptable version of penal substitution; it’s just that the popular view is all too often grossly unethical.
    Unfortunately, I think that the UK evangelicals have not landed where Joel Edwards statement suggests. Since that time, the EA has made it clear that it’s statement of faith is speaking of penal substitution, not just substitution. I guess that excludes the likes of Chalke, Stuart Murray-Williams and myself? That seems like an unnecessary step to me.

  • andrew says:

    thanks Graham. Very helpful. If there is a more recent statement from EA then i would appreciate a link to it.

  • graham says:

    The statement was actually written back in Feb, but – for some reason – seems to have escaped much notice. The link is here.
    It states that belief in penal substitution is required in the EA statement of faith. Apparently, EA members ‘should assent to the Basis of Faith annually, and should do so with integrity.’

  • andrew says:

    ahhhh . .. i wouldnt have known – thanks graham.

  • Bob Robinson says:

    I would have sent you that bouquet of flowers, but I can’t afford to deliver to the UK.
    Dever did quite a bit of slight-of-hand in that article…while writing words at the end that affirmed other views of the atonement the overall tone was that PS is the only way – “No Substitute for the Subsitute.”
    And it should be noted that Scot McKnight’s views were extremely distorted by Dever. Rhetoric over substance gets us nowhere!!

  • is that right? Scott is too kind to say anything about those distortions but i will have a look for myself.
    love those flowers – great visual tool – dont worry about sending me real flowers. you can give me chocolates when you see me.

  • ConradGempf says:

    Evangelicals have long believed and argued in print that our explanations of atonement are all necessarily inadequate that we’ve needed a full bouquet to try to explain what’s going on. Have a look at Leon Morris and co’s pamphlets and short book for Intervarsity in the late 60s. What many evangelicals were reacting to was at least the appearance that Mann/Chalke and especially Green/Baker were arguing Christians should use the full bouquet EXCEPT penal substitution. There are, I know, some for whom it’s a single flower vase, but not very many. That’s not where the EA is at, it’s not where I and many of my colleages and students are at. What we’d like to say is not “only roses” but “enough already — stop bad-mouthing and removing roses.”
    Ask Stuart Murray-Williams or Alan Mann about Howard Marshall’s paper at the Symposium you missed (I wasn’t there either).
    By the way, my write-up of the initial EA evening is still online here:

  • A Bob's Life says:

    Four Great Posts

    Four outstanding posts to read (and be sure to read the comments too!):
    Darryl: Why I Really Like Reformed Guys
    Keith: The Soul of American Evangelical Christianity
    Andrew: Penal Substitution
    Brian: Letters to American Christians

  • A Bob's Life says:

    The Judge

    Jill and I were talking about her current Bible study in Daniel (a Beth Moore study).  Their group was looking at Daniel and comparing it to Revelation.  One of the things that Jill noticed was the discussion of God as the Judge.  It was noted that …

  • as i mentioned on my site, andrew, awesome post and a great around-the-room. top drawer. can you (or anyone) recommend the best books that advocate ps or advocate ps and other theories concomitantly?

  • AllanFJ says:

    Under ‘Penal Substitution’ Google came up with your comment ‘There’s SEEDS of it in Paul…” etc.
    SEEDS OF!?! – I thought the Spirit through Paul had actually made a very clear STATEMENT mate!
    And if Paul’s ‘SEEDS’ are not enough, has ISAIAH CHAPTER 53 got enough for us to come to the truth?!!

  • andrew says:

    are you SHOUTING at me?

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